Terenti Shtykov, head of the Soviet delegation, leaves after the first meeting of the U.S.-Soviet Union Joint Commission at Deoksu Palace, central Seoul, in 1946. After World War II, the Korean Peninsula was under the control of both the United States and the Soviet Union, and Shtykov was the Soviet governor of the North. / Korea Times file
By Andrei Lankov
Terenti Shtykov. Few people in the Korea of the late 1940s would recognize his name. For all practical purposes he was the supreme ruler of North Korea in everything but name. It was under his tutelage that Kim Il-sung’s system was born.
He was an archetypical Stalin’s man: a ruthless, cautious, and hard-working autodidact who combined the vestiges of revolutionary idealism with cunning, shrewdness and efficiency.
Colonel General (three stars) Shtykov was not a career diplomat. Strictly speaking, he was not a military man either. Rather he was a career party functionary, a professional high level manager who found himself involved in Korean affairs almost by accident.
A farmer’s son, he was born in 1907 in what is now eastern Belorussia. As a teenager in the mid-1920s he went to Leningrad looking for a job. After a short vocational training course, he became a worker at a large metalworking plant, a traditional stronghold of the Communists. Soon the young worker joined the Communist Party.
The young worker gained favorable attention from the local party bureaucracy. He was selected to become a party cadre: in those days, the Soviet state still took its initial promises seriously, and wanted to promote people of humble origin whenever possible.
Shtykov’s career rise was fast. By 1938, he was the second secretary of a Leningrad regional party committee. He survived the notorious purges of 1937 that wiped out the majority of local political leaders. He joined the party at the time when it already was under the tight grip of Stalin, and he was not in any way related to the various dissenting groups of the 1910s and 1920s. This helped. However, nobody could be really secure in Stalin’s bureaucracy in the late 1930s, so survival required cunning, self-control and, of course, more than a bit of good luck.
In the late 1930s, Shtykov developed good personal relations with Andrei Zhdanov, the then supreme boss of the Leningrad party bureaucracy. They were so close that some rumors insisted that Shtykov had married into Zhdanov’s family (this was not the case).
In the 1940s Zhdanov was widely seen as Stalin’s most likely successor, so Shtykov was also seemingly positioned to rise high. This expected ascent never happened. Zhdanov did not outlive Stalin, but in the 1940s he was definitely one of the most influential people in the entire country.
Shtykov spent most of the war years in Leningrad where he was a political commissar to different “fronts,” that is, groups of armies. By the end of the war he had become colonel general, the highest rank then available for a political officer.
In summer 1945 he arrived in the Far East where he became a political commissar to the first Far Eastern front, expecting to fight the Japanese in Korea. This appointment essentially determined his fate for the next five years — probably the most important years in his life.
By late 1945 Shtykov had become the undisputed manager of Korean affairs. He enjoyed direct access to Stalin, whom he met a number of times to discuss Korean affairs. Somewhat surprisingly for somebody of his position, Shtykov held a detailed diary which eventually became an important source for students of Korean history (and also a testimony of his own sharp, practical but somewhat cynical mind).
For all practical purposes for the period 1945-1948 he was the Soviet governor of the North. Suffice to say, that even the results of the North Korean elections were drawn up in advance by Shtykov and his fellow Soviet generals, with no Koreans present. The generals decided how many seats should be allocated to each party, and even determined how many women, workers, and farmers should be elected (needless to say, the voters’ wishes miraculously coincided with the calculations of the Soviet generals!).
One should not be so surprised by such excessive attention to detail. This was a time when North Korea was under Soviet control up to the minutest detail. Suffice to say, even the North Korean constitution was edited by Stalin himself and became law of the land only after a lengthy discussion in Moscow, where Shytkov and Stalin sat together looking through the draft of the country’s future supreme law. They approved it, but not completely, since some articles were rewritten by Soviet supervisors. So Shytkov, together with Stalin himself, can be seen as the authors of the North Korean constitution.
He also played a decisive role in the 1946 land reform, arguably the most popular of all the actions ever undertaken by the nascent North Korean regime. The present author is not amused when he reads the writings of South Korean left-wing historians who tend to describe North Korean land reform in great detail and usually attribute it to Kim Il-sung and Korean communists. Soviet military documents, long declassified and published, make a joke of this statement. From beginning to end, the 1946 land reform was planned and prepared by the Soviet military. It is often said that Kim Il-sung “gave the land to the North Korean farmers.” This is factually untrue. It was Shytkov, not Kim Il-sung, who destroyed the established privileges of the landowners of the Northern half of the Korean Peninsula and made the farmers there masters of their land.
With the exception of Japanese colonial politicians, no other foreigner has ever made such an impact on Korea’s destiny as Shytkov. Even though, this role will probably never be recognized by Koreans themselves, largely due to the complexities of Korea’s ideological politics and nationalist worldview. Shytkov was the actual architect of the North Korean state as it emerged in 1945-50. His individual imprint might have been small, since he implemented a fairly standard Soviet policy for that era. Nonetheless, the results of his actions were tremendous.
It was only logical that in 1948 Shtykov became the first Soviet ambassador to Pyongyang. And it was in this capacity that he made probably the worst blunder in his life. He became an enthusiastic proponent of a military solution to the Korean problem and was much involved with the decision to invade the South. This also might be seen as his greatest impact on Korean history. Had Shtykov chosen not to support Kim Il-sung’s invasion plans, the Korean War might never have happened.
Shtykov believed that a blitzkrieg-style offensive by the North Korean armies, if carefully planned and well supplied, would result in a communist takeover of the entire Korean Peninsula. He hardly entertained much moral doubt about the operation. If successful, an invasion would increase both Soviet influence and power of communism in the world, and this was good for Shtykov. So, with a varying degree of enthusiasm, he supported Kim Il-sung’s bellicosity and sent to Moscow a number of cables where he argued that an invasion would produce a swift and decisive victory at almost no cost.
Initially, Stalin was skeptical about Kim Il-sung’s (and Shtykov’s) proposal, since he was afraid that a conflict in Korea might trigger a major confrontation with the United States. He eventually endorsed the plan in late 1949, and war preparations, coordinated by Ambassador Shtykov, moved ahead at full speed. The operational plans were drafted by the Soviet advisers, and trainloads of military equipment were shipped to the North amidst great secrecy.
The war began on June 25, 1950, and initially proceeded according to plan. Seoul fell without much resistance, and by late July the communist forces controlled all of the country except Busan and its hinterland. But then something unexpected happened. American forces joined the war. Shtykov had explicitly stated that such a turn of events would be unlikely.
The result was a complete military disaster. By late October, the North Korean armed forces were wiped out, and only Chinese intervention saved the North Korean state.
Shtykov was made responsible for the debacle (and with good reason, I’ll admit). But by the standards of that brutal time, he fared relatively well. He was recalled from Korea, demoted to major general (losing two stars in an instant), and then appointed to a medium-level administrative position in central Russia. By Stalin’s standards, this was very mild punishment indeed.
Shtykov never dealt with Korea again. After Stalin’s death he returned to the diplomatic service and for a while was an ambassador to Hungary (where he could not find common ground with Kadar, who was too reformist for Shtykov’s old school Stalinist tastes). He died in 1964 in Leningrad while on a short vacation there with his family. That is where he was buried.
It is telling that his family did not enjoy many privileges. Like many top officials of Stlain’s era, Shtykov was a true believer, even though he obviously managed to combine personal devotion to his country with remarkable individual ambitions. He did not amass any personal wealth and he did not want to use his considerable power to ensure that some of his privileges would be inherited by his children. This was typical of his circle: brutal, efficient, hard-working, devoted, heartless people, ready to carry out orders, whatever the cost to advance the interests of their country, no matter what.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.